Feminism & Religion


Feminism and Religion

There is a story in the Biblical gospels concerning the anointing of Jesus by a woman with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment.[1] The woman breaks the jar and pours its value on the head of Jesus.  Some of his disciples observing this act disapproved and argued that its value could have been given to the poor.  In this moment Jesus does something seemingly at odds with his message and his disciples – he honors the woman and her act.

Much like the beginning of Laurie Patton’s chapter, “The Prostitutes Gold”, this story can be re-read in a way that highlights the intersections of tension between feminism and religion.  In Patton’s story a traveling teacher of Sanskrit finds his life failing and awakes to discover his recovery is owed to women running a brothel.  The tensions emerge as he commits to teaching women Sanskrit – a linguistic tradition which represents a hegemonic and elitist privilege afforded only to men.

In both stories the women are nameless and subaltern; these women shape history and give context to the postcolonial condition of Hindu and Christian religiosity.[2] In both stories there is open space to re-read the role of women in the history of religious formation.  These women offer themselves outside of the male-centric convention that would have them sidelined, unheard, and marginalized.  They enter the discourse of religion as a call to mark the histories of oppression which governed their bodies, voices, and influence.

In her book, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Musa Dube makes one point very clear.  For her and for other Two-Thirds World women the legacy of Biblical influence is both patriarchal and imperialistic. [3] To be in alliance with a feminist and subaltern struggle is to take seriously the role of the Bible as a central ideological text of Western Imperialism and masculine domination.  As an ally with feminist and postcolonial theory and action, the Bible (and Jesus) must be understood to both limit feminine perspectives and contribute to systemic and internalized violence.

The tension between feminism and Christian religiosity is marked by the history of colonialism.  Postcolonial theory seeks to expose this history and its multiple exploitive powers as extensions of the ideological frameworks that flowed out of Christian domination, its missions, its salvific narratives, its superiority complex, and its culturally specific engendered violence.[4]

For religion and feminism to intersect and live with each other, letting-be and being-with, a great deal of work must be done to revitalize attempts at Biblical interpretation that resist both patriarchal and imperial oppression.

In the Biblical passage above, Jesus can be re-read as one who identifies with a feminist struggle – to act, to bless, to express power despite convention and ridicule from men.  I refrain from the problematics that arise by labeling Jesus a feminist – both feminism and Jesus skillfully/historically refuse essentializing identity.  What is clear is that his alliance with this woman in her anointing act stands against dominant male authority.  Jesus not only reproaches his disciples, he is in strategic relation to his own identity as he rejects one of the major tenants of his own teaching – care for the poor.  Jesus renders non-essential even his own lessons.  Jesus manifests what Gayatri Spivak describes as ‘strategic essentialism,’ a move that commits to a deconstructive relationship that interrogates essentialist discourses of oppression, especially patriarchy.  The anointing is an extremely radical and powerful act that only this woman could perform.  It was a symbol of her power over convention, over patriarchy, over Jesus’ disciples, even over Jesus’ own teaching.

In this re-reading, feminism encounters a religious discourse needing her presence.  It is a re-reading that resists multiple oppressions and seeks alliance with postcolonial feminist critique.

Thinking through these intersections makes space for feminism and religion to meet, dialogue, intermingle, and re-formulate singular space into its hybrid – a space where feminism and religion are both present but neither one is clearly/distinctly located. Re-reading the intersections of religion and feminism reconstitutes the subject and representation of both.

The leveling critique of women located in the hybrid field between “post-” and (fill-in-the-blank), calls forth the dilemma between writing and action.  Even in an effort at re-reading Jesus into feminist discourse the problem remains one of a ‘textual struggle’ and not ‘other’-wise.[5] In Obioma’s Nnaemeka’s chapter “Bringing African Women into the Classroom,” she brilliantly articulates the tension: “Here lie the difficulties and the risk.  Feminist theorizing and praxis must be rooted in genuine feminist ethics.  The troubling contradictions between what we preach and write and what we do fuel the frustrations felt by many who continue to value and practice feminist scholarship.”[6]

One can re-read Jesus as feminist, but can one enter a space where Jesus is contested (let’s say a church…) and bring forth that hybrid space that is neither ‘feminism’ nor ‘Christianity’ but something else – something other?


[1] Bible NRSV.  This story is found in three of the four Gospels: Mt 26: 6-13; Mk 14: 3-9; Jn 12: 1-8.

[2] Patton, “The Prostitute’s Gold”. 124.  In Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse.  Ed. Donaldson & Pui-lan.

[3] Dube.  Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible.  199.

[4] Musa Dube.  “Postcoloniality, Feminist Spaces, and Religion”.  102.  In Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse.  Ed. Donaldson & Pui-lan.


[5] Musa Dube.  “Postcoloniality, Feminist Spaces, and Religion”.  107.  In Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse.  Ed. Donaldson & Pui-lan.

[6] Nnaemeka, Obioma.  “Bringing African Women into the Classroom: Rethinking Pedagogy and Epistemology”.  53.  In African Gender Studies: A Reader.  Oyeronke Oyewumi. Ed.


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Essay I

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

“We should admit rather that power produces knowledge…that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (27, DP)

Who I am has become a question that places my consciousness as an effect of power/knowledge.  The conditions that produced the embodied and acting ‘thinking-thing’ are more on the side of rendering useless a subjectivity that ‘I thought I had’.  Though, its arrival is in some since a miracle (un-signified, utter rupture), it also maps a genealogy of the “modern soul and of a new power to judge.” (23, DP)  I am that product of disciplinary forms of power/knowledge; a body inseparable from the political field that constitutes its agency, inseparable from the mechanism of law, labor, and institutions that insists on its subjugation and productivity. (26, DP)  I am ‘en-souled’ to the extent I am an instrument of political anatomy and not the other way around, “A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body…the soul is the prison of the body.” (30, DP)

Free the body from the soul; accept contradictory revolts; be against comfort; map the micro-physics of power and practice pushing on its edges; position self/body in strategic refusal to domination despite its hopelessness; visiblize knowledge/power configurations through marking particular points of its own discontinuity and inversion; make a life that is always already writing a history of the present.

The mechanisms of power/knowledge through discipline and punish were present from an early age.  I recall the last time physical discipline/punishment met my body when my father spanked me.  He directed his call with authority – I understood that to pop the balloon I was sitting on would be disobeying.  My mother sits watching me.  Her own strategy of refusals was now an embodied force in her son’s act – hints of foreshadowing into the coming divorce.  I popped the balloon.  I didn’t believe he would discipline me, spank me; it was such a mundane act – no one needed the balloon; it was my balloon.  I explicitly remember asking, begging ‘why’.  My father’s answer was and still is – ‘because you disobeyed me’.

In this event, it was not the balloon that mattered.  The balloon’s survival was inconsequential – it could have been a loaf of bread – anything.  My spanking was, of course, a ceremonial act.  It represented the extra-legal measure of bodily enforcement – a deterrent, a purging of the crime.  The whelps and shame flowing from the act was the sacrament of justice being expressed in all its force. (34, DP)  It was the system of patriarchal duty, an Adamic/Abrahamic legacy of authority becoming material through my father’s hand.  It signified a disciplinary measure not only on my body’s future, but also on my mothers – it was an engendered act.  It was an economy that had its most intensive effects not on the body of the ‘criminal’ but on those who have not committed crime; those within whom the sovereign’s vulnerability lies – the masses – or in this case my mother. (94, DP)  My spanking was a protection against future household disorder; it was a protection against the act of household refusal/disobedience becoming widespread – protection against the seed of refusal my act bore within it.  (93, DP)

The disciplinary measure was staged against the refusal I represented and its confrontation with power; it was staged indirectly against the refusal of my mother.  I was challenging – even making mockery – the authority in my ‘father’s no’.  In that challenge his power was called to act, to exemplify and mark the body of dissent.  In my disobedience I revealed the discontinuity of his power; the powerlessness of my father’s correction, guidance, truth.  I rendered that power – like the criminal’s act reveals the power of the sovereign – power-less, ineffectual, void.  “The crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince.” (47, DP)

The economy of exemplification rapped up in my father’s act was rendered useless before the punishment even arrived.  His position of intrinsic moral superiority was marked absent, signed vacant.  He met a removal and dislodging of his own identity through the pain my body signified.  My mother’s power of resistance was dawning as the embodied refusal in me – a trajectory that would eventually lead to her divorce from my father; an act that for my father, represented his greatest fear and failure, and for my mother was at once the culmination of her greatest strength and her sadistic guilt.  I, my mother and my father were rapped up in a confusion/coalescence of power dynamics spoken so loudly and lived so thoroughly they silenced conversation for a quarter of a generation.

That act of disobedience constituted not only a challenge to my ‘father’s no’ and that form of power that punishes, but it also signified a gap in the ‘order of things’.  “The ‘no’ through which this gap is created does not imply the absence of a real individual who bears the father’s name; rather, it implies that the father has never assumed the role of nomination and that the position of the signifier, through which the father names himself and, according to the Law, through which he is able to name, has remained vacant…the catastrophe of the signifier.” (82, LCP)  I was not ‘disobeying my father’ I was using my mother’s power/knowledge to transgress a household limit.  The gap, the space, was always already present; the event finalized the embodied or enacted dissent, and in so doing disarmed the location of codified power – clearing space for difference, distance, and a reconfiguring of boundaries. (35, LCP)

It was the last time he spanked me.  At the age of five years old I brought the sign of my father’s authority into question and begin distancing myself from that familial, social, and cultural legality.  When the double moment of truth arrived, in the infraction and the punishment, this family entered a game that like the scaffold, “…did not re-establish justice; it reactivated power.” (49, DP)  I began to play with powers.  It was the moment of my determined autonomy and refusal against the calculated fascism of discipline and punishment.  It was the event that created me; it ‘reactivated power’ – my power – to decide to live beyond the absent sign, an absent authority.  The sign of authority is forever exposed.  From its first moment of subtle arrival its trajectory was an inevitable glorification of transgression.  A subtle process of authoritic erosion marked my family until its eventual disintegration or reorientation.  It’s lived result in me: no more was my family able to guard or discipline my moves; there was a mastery of body calculations which performed for acceptability, docility, and ‘freedom’ – a performance because it was also a strategy ordered sufficiently to avoid complications that I desired remain hidden.  A desire for new forms of disciplinary power through which to do ‘perpetual battle’ required I cross the boundaries of greater spheres of legality.

I am still confounded by my inability to act without the ‘father’s no’.  Despite its re-lived tendency to implode I call its presence down.  I want disciplinary power: its face – it to face me.  I live as a body aiming transgression toward the limits of law.  I intend on it proving itself to me because it is what has created me.  It that believes in its own authority to perform transgressions – an ‘authority’ as absent as the father, as absent and exposed as Foucault makes its history: a genealogy of unequivocal command, of the power of legality, persuasion, and dominance; a technology of infinite inquisition. (227, DP)

I have a problem colliding against representatives of authority.  I repeat it.  My suspicion repeats a multiform language seeking to defy configurations power/knowledge – to create them.  The collision of power/knowledge in my family, its effects as assimilation and utter rupture continued in an embodied tendency toward conflict and understanding with state representatives – police officers: the only space I knew that demanded/commanded docility and obedience with such a uniformed and uncontested presence.  The reason ‘I’ exist within a state; or rather that the state existed me: to play with it; transgress it; throw it new language and wrestle its program of docility-utility, as an object to control, as a disciplinary body.

Essay II

Language, Counter-Memory, Practice

Who I am and how I think both signify my own confrontation with histories of enemies and traitors – repetitions of internal and external others.  An idea of language, counter-memory, and practice demands, the “multiplication of meaning through the practice of vigilant repetitions.”  (9, LCP)

I practice repetition.  It seems to be an endless confusion of cyclical forces that transform my ‘theory’.  My lived trajectory of defiance which surpassed the authority of my ‘father’s no’ has landed me both on the sidewalk of flashing lights, walking lines, and breathalyzers and in the classrooms of confrontation, discussion and renewal of language.

My relationship with police officers has been the most blatant mode of defining what my relationship to authority would constitute – how I arrive defiant, resistant, refusing the most uniformed embodiment of statist power.  This relationship, as it directly addresses the themes presented above through a situated reading of Discipline and Punish, has an equation that is an effect of genealogical work.  This work of history makes absent not only the authority of the ‘father’ but the location of power/knowledge exercised by the state.  The ‘nomination’ of authority has never been in place.  Its uniformed representatives are its instrumentality of protection against its unlikely and systemically contradictory existence.

The police embody the discovery that the body is the object and target of disciplinary power.  S/he is the civil soldier, baring signs and arms.  S/he is the front line of statist power whose disciplinary measures operating on the side of legality could kill, confine, or remove the freedom of my body.  This disturbing fact, like the reality of the prison, is the moment power does not hide or mask itself; it reveals itself as bio-political tyranny – a tyranny that my perpetual conflict with localized pockets of power seeks for experimentation and practice.

Hours of my mental space have warred against this tyranny.  I now turn to practices that translate this theory, make it useful.  This war – ‘perpetual conflict’ – has discovered its own discontinuity and “the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge.” (162, LCP)  On the side of the road, pulled over on my bicycle, twenty minute conversations spin around a contested space of power/knowledge configurations.  I went from felon to free in twenty minutes of circulating language games that included my declaration: “You have the gun officer.”  An originary moment of confession – repeated, mirrored, repeated, mirrored; an affirmation of a will toward a progressive enslavement that for all its talk – only wanted not to die.  “Perhaps even speaking so as not to die…” was my discovery of a situated self in the officer whose full intention was to have his power effective against all odds.  His effort spoke for the law as powerfully as if his identity was dependent on its perfect certainty.  It made manifest his authority that assured, ‘the action of society on each individual.’ (96, DP)  His power must be effective because it was the embodied power of disciplinary society acting on an individual – a living aporia as even the people on street jeered him.  He asked me to rise-up off my knees at one point, a position I had taken only to remove my backpack yet one whose aggressive submission revealed a calculation of disciplinary knowledge and an imbalance of excess. (49, DP)  He had so much power I became the exception, the transgression during the course of our conversation.  The people were on my side and I stood against the law which supported their common cause.  I had broken the law and yet I would go free.

A month ago I was pulled over on my bicycle again.  Here I was quick to pull over and quicker to state the facts, align my confession with his perfect sight/perfect certainty, and affirm his position of power as one whose duty made it possible, not as an effect of his individual interiority.  He was delighted to speak with me and pleased to offer his best advice.  I was issued a four hundred dollar ticket for running a red light on a bicycle, and I have never had so much success in communicating, affirming, and removing all significant power/knowledge barriers with an officer of the law.  It was a delightful exchange – it was a transgression and a rupture insofar that I became the law before it had to be enforced.  The ticket was thrown out of court.

In both instances, I left with freedom.  But the second encounter I more successfully sacrificed myself – a sacrifice that is a use of history in its commitments to neutrality, truth, and a will to knowledge. (162, LCP)  It is not the calculation of perspective that allows one to understand the ‘other-as-same’, rather it is the perspective of history that ‘mimics death in order to enter the kingdom of the dead.’ (158, LCP)

What has become manifest in my relationship to police officers is an ability to shape-shift or practice counter-memory or an identity of difference.  The intersections of my theory and practice aim at “revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious.” (208, LCP)  The subject of knowledge, that levels playing fields of power, views history not only creative but absent, not only parodic but dissociative, not only empirical but sacrificial.  Nietzsche’s grasp of history speaks of an inversion – multiple inversions – that rid its attempt at codification and singularity.  It demands transformations and transgressions of time.  It forces limits of history and language into spaces of risk and experimentation, reconfigured space, and a profusion of entangled events.  (155, LCP)  As a product of repetitious enslavement to experimentation the police become windows of opportunity – authors of social discourse with whom I collaborate, practice, and re-read, even write.

The trajectory of dissonance, defiance, and refusal meets a history that shows the opposite and even something completely different.  Discerning an internal/external enemy at the gates of my familial life reads neglect at the center of memory rather than something different which would be more accurate.  I lived a wonderful childhood.  Mostly, I was not spanked.  Mostly, I behaved.  I through education, not familial life, found most of my enemies and I found them located in the re-reading of my history.  I found a history of counter-memory that challenged not only my theory but my practice.

Meeting genealogies of present which map Biblical disenchantment and God delusion interrupts conformities to those legal boundaries which both Bible and God governed.  The subject I thought I was thinking was not placeable.  I encountered a dislocation of subject and its sacrifice seemed to be ever-present, repeating as much as the language shifted.  I discovered ‘effective’ history uprooting power/knowledge and its own pretended continuity.  “History becomes ‘effective’ to the degree that it introduces discontinuity into our very being…because knowledge is not made from understanding; it is made for cutting.” (154, LCP)

What is made visible becomes confrontation, struggle, and instability in the very genetic make-up constituting power/knowledge.  Entering-in or interrupting configurations of power/knowledge remove the strategic positioning of dominance and body conformity.  This learning has been the opposite of ‘developing consciousness’.  It has been a challenge of freedom itself.  It has born within it a subject whose interest is in sapping power or taking power.  “It is an activity conducted alongside those who struggle for power, and not their illumination from a safe distance.  A ‘theory’ is the regional system of this struggle.” (208, LCP)

Challenge authority; expose its veins of vulnerability and strike/release.  Position yourself in strategic relationships to power that offer complementary, antagonistic, and sustainable forces; put to death all that resists the forms of life willing to birth.  Exercise power that recognizes the intra-dependent subject at the center of its agency; maintaining life through pain; being a becoming toward ‘death-torture’ – a being that determines the self, situates the body, lives beyond the judgment and transgresses the limits.

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Donna Haraway Diffracted: Interpellation, the Philosophy of Science and Modest Witnessing

Donna Haraway Diffracted: Interpellation, the Philosophy of Science and Modest Witnessing

This paper is of hybrid nature – like its author it seeks to integrate worlds and unsettle convention.  In our postmodern moment this is an unoriginal confession, especially among post-secular feminist thinkers.  Donna Haraway’s voice is already speaking, re-affirming: “Cross-overs, mixing, and boundary transgressions are a favorite theme of late-twentieth-century commentators in the United States, and I can’t pretend to be an exception.”[1]

I practice writing that is inseparably, inescapably personal.  I hope the reader will enter ‘my-world.’  I purposefully promote my-self.  If I am serious about ‘unsettling convention’ then I must make strategic claims – my ally-ship sails toward some worlds and not others.

It is no secrete that the academy builds worlds based on its ability to interpret, to render knowledge stable so that it can be wielded for use-value.  We hope the academy practices its power justly, with democratic ends and with a special attention to healing or at least ‘happiness.’  But, the power of objectivity is abused by academics.  So I stand with Donna Haraway again when I claim to be a ‘modest witness’.  I take seriously that all my claims to knowledge are mediated through a participatory world – bound by radical relationality, I practice a hermeneutic of grace.  I write myself because I believe it is more powerful to acknowledge participation than assume objectivity – especially within the humanities; and though the worlds of science are an exception, it is not an exception purified from error.

In short, I recognize that there is a politic to writing; and though my epistemology is gracious, I still struggle with authority – even as it manifests in ‘acceptable academic discourse.’  I seek to commend the strength it took to build that authority and to offer new understandings, new examples of how authority can become differently abled in the world.

On Haraway

In constructing hyper-personal, hybrid expressions of knowledge and experience I am always already conjuring and confessing my allegiance to feminist thinkers whose notions of hybridity have captured my imagination:

Donna Haraway, (1944 – ) is a fellow Virgo, and is currently a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Bringing her voice to the forefront of my paper is intentional.  Donna Haraway’s ability to think and write is substantial.  I hesitate to be so postured in my praise of her work.  (!) Exclamations are more extraordinary and so is Haraway.  Her writing is creative and rigorous; her wit is quirky and sharp; her knowledge is transformative; her work relieves the sedimentation of dominant culture – the culture she is redefining becomes something other than U.S. centric, other than fiat feminism and other than the saturated misogyny of technoscience and media.  Further, Haraway is interesting!  She is loose with language and dogs; she embodies hybidity: defying academic boundaries she is both scientist and anthropologist, object and subject, lover of both simian and machine.  Donna Haraway is my brand of feminism – a brand less for sale and more implicated in the construction of libratory discourse.

Still, Haraway is not quite implicated enough.  This writing drifts from Haraway’s shores into the open sea of storm and reliance.  My ship is prepared with her tools and leaves toward other localities – the white safe shores of Santa Cruz are not for me.  I am bound to specific worlds, specific institutions, specific identities.  I will spend the rest of this essay moving towards dreams despite contested knowledge, naming my allegiance, expending my agency and attempting to make it work – make it make sense.  Three sections of direction will guide my compass: thinking my subjectivity through the concept of interpellation, encountering buffers that can displace the myth of certainty and embracing responsibility through institutional figuration: if one insists on a thesis, it exists amongst these rhizomaic signifiers.

Subjectivity & Interpellation

Interpellation is an incredibly provocative concept.  A theory flowing from Althusser through Haraway to me, it considers how, “ideology constitutes its subjects out of concrete individuals by hailing them…interpellation occurs when a subject, constituted in the very act, recognizes or misrecognizes itself in the address of a discourse.”[2] I claim I am experiencing interpellation all the time.  I am constituted by my subject positions: white, male, heterosexual, middle class, Christian, able-bodied – even beautiful, from the US – even powerful, and thoroughly educated.  Some of my subject positions speak louder than the others; some speak before I’ve spoken; I am bound by all them – called out, hailed: interpellated.  And even those subject positions are marginal when compared to what they equal in mass – I am more than the sum of my parts, more than those fragmented subjectivities.

I’ll return to the demographics of self in a moment because they do not suffice to explain the full creativity of Althusser’s theory.  Interpellation isn’t only about excavating the subject for the subject’s sake but more so about understanding how ideology lives and functions for some worlds and not others.  Contained within Haraway’s book, Modest_Witness, is Althusser’s example of interpellation which is worth quoting in its entirety:

Althusser used the example of the policemen calling out, “Hey, you!” If I turned my head, I am a subject in that discourse of law and order; and so I am subject to a powerful formation.  How I mis/recognize myself – will I be harassed by a dangerous armed individual with the legal power to invade my person and my community; will I be reassured that the established disorder is in well-armed hands; will I be arrested for a crime I too acknowledge as a violation; or will I see an alert member of a democratic community doing rotating police work? – speaks volumes both about the unequal positioning of subjects in discourse and about different worlds that might have a chance to exist.

Althusser’s example provides that unfamiliar orientation, where I discover I am not alone – the foundation of ethical relationality and of politics.  I am shaped by the ‘other’ both historical forces and the multitude of bodies with whom I share space.  Attentiveness to ideology as it functions through interpellation becomes a work of responsibility.  It requires attentiveness to structures of history that constitute the present in order to change it – to push it towards compassion.  Becoming ‘aware’ is only marginally about fulfilling the liberal white dream of self-actualization, where everyone is ‘human’ and accepted; where the individual subject becomes the object of value worthy of investment and ‘integration’.  Becoming ‘aware’ practices empathizing with the multiple positions both the subject and the context can inhabit, growing familiar with the unequal knowledge/power configurations that allow some worlds to live and force others to convert or parish and the discovery that few voices count, few histories are written, indeed, even the objects to study are always already – interpellated.

Interpellation functions powerfully within the discourses of demographics.  Returning again to the example of my body: my body signifies utter privilege – a body of global secular dominance, I fit the ‘universal’ subject.  My body is an ‘object’ which shows up to count, research, map, organize and market – I am/become use-value.  Within the second Christian millennium becoming the sum of my parts means fulfilling the liberal political order without remainder or retribution, counter-memory or critical discourse.  Plug me in with out remorse because I have no memory.  I am the fulfillment of both genetics and human reason pursuing perfection – never-mind legacies of violence, grief and mourning… we have better medicine, mobile labor, global capital and DuPont: “Building Better Worlds through Science.”

The political power of interpellation goes much deeper now.  Wielding responsible action out of theoretical concepts such as interpellation has occupied a central position in post-colonial and subaltern theory for some time.  The relationship between theory and practice is still birthing new forms of consciousness.  For example, I am interpellated in more than the dominant demographics that social science has developed over the last few hundred years – becoming the sum of my parts is always, already more than the quantified and qualified demographics I fulfill.  This body, this subject, is also interpellated out of deep history, deep time – one that spans not only the formations of life on Earth but also the composition of the cosmos.  A subject of stars, my DNA binds me to a history of organic evolution and constitutes living consciousness.  Much more recently in the course of biotic time an envelope of human powers developed to unify productivity and purpose across semiotic-material landscapes.  The possibilities of using a creative concept such as ‘interpellation’ expand beyond enlightenment reason to include intuitive leaps that birth different realities. Thinking the play of erstwhile superstitious concepts such as magic and myth and cutting the edge of biological determinism with theories like morphic resonance,[3] new contributions are often added to the possibility of understanding links between theory and practice, freedom and responsibility, the human and the divine.  It is vital to sail our imagination toward post-enlightenment reason, counter-narratives and contested knowledge.

Becoming the ‘modest witness’ of my own subject position requires provocative theories like Althusser’s “interpellation.”  In order to wield the creative power of such concepts they must be loosed from the confines of modern convention.  The concept helps the thinker think ideology but even the concept itself is ‘interpellated’ out of a world where ideology is another interconnected signifier – unissued and passing.  I am moving towards thinking institutional figures and body politics – its semiotic-material relationality amidst cities and subjectivies.  But first, in pursuit of free space to play with the politics of interpellation – of figuration and modest witnessing – thinking must critique bounded ideas, explore zones that will buffer the resistance against thinking new thoughts.  I hope other life formations have a chance to live.  In the next section the myth of certainty will be exposed to marginal praise and necessary critique.

A Buffer to the Tyranny of Certainty

Knowledge is better when it is wise and humble – call me a philosopher!  Entertaining the buffers and bumpers that provide zones where wisdom might stand at the side of technoscience might be the most important work of the century.  The purpose is to expose the tyranny of certainty to scrutiny, to suggest ‘other’ readings are possible that might satisfy more dimensions of the inter-experience we share and to extend the survival of our planetary era.

The science of certainty, like every other human phenomenon, underwent a process of unfolding – at first its historical links can be readily traced, but its history eventually refracts back into an endless spectrum of events that make it like all other entities – traceless.[4] Despite the evolution of empiricism, mathematics, experimentation, and the secular liberal rationality, the Western culture of the past 500 years has been preoccupied by the most powerfully functioning myth ever formulated.[5] It colors interpretation while at the same time functions to suppress critical reflection.  Indeed, Thomas Kuhn, goes to great lengths in demonstrating how scientific paradigms develop and shift.  The whole of his work on the subject: The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, makes clear the point that,

…historians (of science) confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the ‘scientific’ component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled ‘error’ and ‘superstition.’  The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today.  If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.[6]

Spirits do speak.  It is important to recognize that the ‘authority’ given to ‘scientific rigor’ participates in the same mythical consciousness as did the ‘authority’ of 13th century theologians in Medieval Europe or the ‘authority’ of the primordial mythological sensibility captured in the epic Homeric poems the Iliad and Odyssey.[7] The technoscience mode of consciousness has become the most powerful mythos in our planetary era.  Presently, technoscience is producing knowledge and machinery whose authority is practically non-negotiable.  The confidence of technoscience culture to reach the heavens, secure labor and resources, improve health and speed, even fulfill moral imperatives provides this age with radical optimism in the future.  Myths are both magnetic and magnificent; they occupy a space of religification and evangelization, where to be in critical relationship to scientific principles constitutes a position close to blasphemy.

It is an understatement to remind the reader that the age of enlightenment was finished with modesty.  Still, it is important, if not to worship, to make sure praise is given where praise is due.  The Enlightenment – its power and success – is impressive.  It was true that through rigor, experimentation, and the willingness to refine knowledge through mutual confirmation that our species could build foundations – knowledge/power would grow and yield great fruit through hard work.  The heights of human engineering still climb and inspire.

In an era that has brought a global awareness to humanity for the first time, when the planet Earth with all its inhabitants can be seen in its entirety in cosmic space as the single celestial body that it is, and when the universe has been revealed as a creative vastness expanding through millions of galaxies and billions of years of cosmic evolution from the big bang to the present, the collective consciousness now emerging recognizes as was never before possible that all participate in a single enormous history.  At the same time, that history, for humanity and the Earth community, has reached a stage of rapidly deepening crisis and peril.[8]

The blatant reification of mathematics, statistics, reductionism, and quantitative measurement has lead to the abstraction of a particular world torn away from the full presentational expression of concrete reality – of daily experience.  “Such an abstraction arises from the growth of selective emphasis.  It endows human life with three gifts, namely, an approach to accuracy, a sense of the qualitative differentiation of external activities, a neglect of essential connections.”[9] As technoscience increases its power, it looses sight of the results of its actions in a world of relationality.  This mode of relation facilitates action that insists upon a ‘progress’ without ever considering that which is sacrificed for the progress; in the obsession with growth/addition/development a whole culture has lost the critical ability to subtract the difference that is annihilated in pursuit of ‘additive’ change.

Let my critique not hinder the potential of future discovery, but be a modest witness that calls forth memories of compassion, injections of wisdom, and insists that it was only a recent discovery that all endeavors toward knowledge were and still are bound to the pursuit of wealth and the access to material and markets – thank you Karl Marx!  In an implicated and globally dependent world the (contested) innocence science once operated within has eroded.  Capitalism and its military-industrial growth complex do produce some worlds and not others.  The growth of any significant power adheres toward arcs of increase and decrease – the science and certainty of our age is no exception.  I am suggesting that only a serious relationship with humility and wisdom – calling forth the divine Sophia – will offer cause for hope against an increasingly mounting systemic crisis.

Falling just short of claiming divine feminine status in this essay, Donna Haraway’s voice is a comforting, correcting presence that joins forces with another feminist philosopher’s of science, Sandra Harding, to rethink potential trajectories of technoscience.  Harding, via Haraway’s book Modest_Witness, insists on arguing for what she calls “strong objectivity” to replace and refine the standards that show up legitimating some facts and not others in the domain of scientific knowledge.  By “strong objectivity” Harding is insisting that science admit that culture (ideology) plays as large a roll in shaping scientific research as determining ‘fact’ and methods; That “a stronger, more adequate notion of objectivity would require methods for systematically examining all of the social values shaping a particular research process…”[10] Haraway supports Harding’s claims that critical reflexivity must be a part of the continuing practice of science.

Building buffer zones, where science meets its limits and Lady Wisdom has the opportunity to have a voice is a difficult matter.  ‘Objectivity’ must finally admit that its existence is bound to relationality.  As Bruno Latour goes to great lengths to remind us in his work, Science in Action – that the construction of facts is a collective process; that all knowledge must be witnessed or it passes into the void; infused with Haraway’s rigor we go further to insist that issues of race, class, gender, sex, nationality, religion – in short – culture – that culture shapes technoscience.  Attempting to fuse practices of democracy and relationship to situated knowledges – cultures of value – redefines the possibilities of technoscience while at the same time admitting that, “Nothing comes without its world…”[11]

Worlding and Institutional Figures

The point is to cast one’s sail toward a direction, to chose one world and not another.  It is an endless sea of choice and the winds will leave the indecisive ship wrecked upon vacant shores or crushed in the onslaught of torrent and wave.  Insisting that Wisdom have a voice among technoscience worlds – the worlds of advanced global capitalism and military-industrial growth complexes – radical shifts in the academy, politics, and the myriad of institutions that constitute statist identity must awaken to difference… and surrender.  The logic of certainty that once formed, managed, and marketed life-systems has become myth in an age of mega-wonder.  Foucault’s notion of biopower is apt.  There is a double bind.  On the one hand the discernable matrix of control – methods of therapeutics, surveillance and administration – and on the other magnitudes of freedom, decentralized power, the realization that there is so much knowledge, so much material, so much meaning that no one has a clue whose sailing the ship.  It does seem clear that our ship is able to traverse many miles, it is fast and strong, but I swear the contemporary global order is deluding itself.  Our best research assures us that our speed and descent have everything to do with the whirl poor swallowing us and not of our ‘bright’ future.

It is clear we need the help of sea creatures or at least companion species as Haraway insists.  There is a great world of trained swimmers but as a whole our Western secular, Christian culture seems to be afraid of getting wet!  It takes being baptized to truly emerge victorious in ministry – maybe Christianity got that right (?)  A global multitude needs bold new understandings – spiritual awakening is needed.  Teaching large sections of society is a huge, impossible task.  Calling whole cities to enter the work of ideological and structural deconstruction is crazy!  Demanding that whole institutions address the potential of their power, to practice mighty deeds in local arenas is really possible – indeed these forms of action are happening all around us.

Calling on Haraway again I submit that institutions are ‘figures’ in these semiotic-material manifestations of change.  Where notions of capital implode the market driving/diving toward concrete and ballooning debt, company-statist configurations seem to leave no choice out of the madness of either/or.  I find the figure of institutions to be a viable third party, post-statist solution – wading between the hybrid worlds of state responsibility and organizational sustainability.  Haraway is using figuration to refer to the multiple figures in the soap opera of technoscience, but I love playing with her concept in terms of the institution.  Where figuration has deep roots in the semiotics of Western Christian realism, the figure of the institution is still making promises that salvation stories make.  “To figure” as an institution would mean to count or calculate and to be in a story, to have a role; for Haraway the ‘figure’ also captures graphic representations and visual forms – for our purpose the institution has a place, looks a certain way, allies with specific constructed worlds of labor, resource and value.  It may also involve displacements that can trouble identification and certainties – multiple locations and a fluid network of occupations; they are “performative images that can be inhabited, that are condensed maps of whole worlds.”[12]

Sailing away from safe shores toward situated realities, local concerns and embedded practice I submit that institutions like Glide and CIIS become ‘figures’ in worlding.  They both trouble identities that insist a place be normative and docile, capitalistic or statist – they are hybrid entities whose expression in concrete, local SF worlds that defy boundaries of conformity, relationality and the difference between the actual and the potential.  Another one of Haraway’s provocative terms becomes useful to aid this thinking: diffraction.  These special institutions capture diffracted patterns of history and give place to heterogeneous worlds seeking to live.  When Haraway is using Sandra Hardings notion of strong objectivity, diffraction becomes a key insight in how knowledge might be accessed to understand and build just worlds.  She uses diffraction to discuss the patterned, recorded histories of interaction, interference and reinforcement between heterogeneous history and differentiated consciousness.  This is a great word to apply to these hybrid institutions seeking to harbor diverse worlds.  Both Glide and CIIS diffractively build life at once critical, narrative, graphic, psychological, spiritual and political – they become a ‘technology’ for making consequential meanings – an anatomy of meanings.  Diffraction is, “An optical metaphor for the effort to make a difference in the world…Reflexivity has been much recommended as a critical practice, but my suspicion is that reflexivity, like reflection, only displaces the same elsewhere, setting up the worries about copy and original, the search for authentic and the really real.  Reflexivity is a bad trope for escaping the false choice between realism and relativism in thinking about strong objectivity and situated knowledges in technoscientific knowledges.”[13]

The identity of being a ‘modest witness’ has its difficulties.  It is the unmarked category of identity – the identity that comes from no-where, from no culture but still seems to have a voice.  The stronger the objectivity the more potent the voice and at the same time the more significant he bares witness to the subjectivity of his objectivity – as Haraway says, “His subjectivity is his objectivity.”[14] Performing as a modest witness to the institutes of CIIS and Glide subjects me to a powerful formation – that of becoming what toward the beginning of my paper I excavated: my body, this subjectivity, this identity of dominant demographics.  I am intimate with types of subjectivity whose identities are stable, whose salvation is secured, whose ‘figure’ is sustained through the structure of establishment, access to markets, technology and knowledge, even through history itself, and especially in cities like San Francisco, USA.

The return to the self as institution is the figurative solution I have hoped to develop.  I can explain why I do not care about environment justice, why I need the poor to be poor, why I need arenas like CIIS and Glide to facilitate the subjectivity of disassociation I’m always only verbally assaulting.  I am a product of privilege; indeed I am a product of both CIIS and Glide, of San Francisco, CA, of the United States of America.  In this way the broadest context of this life, its action, and its production must be figured to include perspectives that view the defective/deficient/destructive material effects of its own social and cultural being.[15] This renders an extremely humbling picture – an identity that takes seriously its most insidious practice as integrally-symbiotically linked to its survival.  It points to the limit of present ecological conditions to remedy the problem; it illustrates the center of impending implosion born from silenced pain, poverty, and ruin.  In at least this circumstance, this subject is centered in secular-salvific ideology whose life cannot be dislocated from the markets, law, policy, institutions, learning, and the power it calls forth.  In the case of the liberal, white, privileged, active, individual the Tenderloin functions as a local, available source of cathartic, altruistic, ceremonial, ‘giving-back’.  For CIIS, I am a poster child of possibility – an embodiment of its own latent potential, but always, only that – potential – for in actuality it is what it is.

San Francisco’s (Glide & CIIS?) implicit action of production and ignorance culminating in this poverty of self does not see the challenge that it itself is throwing down and which might one day be taken up: an interruption in the continuum of poverty; a revolution against bio-political orders of surveillance, management and punishment, a weakening exploitive capitalism, and a deconstruction of the mass social and cultural paralysis griping our citizenry. [16]

Eventually, communities experiencing injustice, especially within urban ecologies, must engage collective, local political efforts to protest and refuse the policy and practice that allows injustice and mediocrity to occur.  David Camacho, in his book, Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles, argues that once a big enough voice is raised, then a decisive effort at ‘incorporation’ in liberal coalitions in city governments can function to bring the representation needed to actually change policies/practices in favor of underprivileged, under-represented communities.

This is the democratic ideal: the greater participation of a people the greater representation and the greater power to affect policy in their favor.  But, as Camacho points out, “…movement emergence requires a transformation of consciousness (feelings of efficacy) within a large segment of the aggrieved community.  Before the protest stage can begin, individuals must collectively define their situation as unjust and vulnerable…”[17] At this juncture it is education that is the problem, and one recognizes a systemic contradiction to grassroots political movement for underprivileged peoples. Democracy calls people to unite for political power, but forms of education must be available to build communal awareness in order for unification to begin.  These methods of education are systematically unavailable to underprivileged peoples because the education is build to empower those already of privileged access to knowledge, markets, jobs, and healthy environments – subjects like myself!  How might communities unite whose greatest concern is paying the rent, staying sober, feeding itself and staying off the streets?  Basic needs must be met before the time and resources can prioritize education that would enable political action to support common grievances.

“Sustaining a coalition based on racial, gender, and class differences is a formidable task; limited resources impede organizing; lack of information can block mobilization efforts; determining accountability and responsibility for environmental hazards can be impossible…”[18] These public deficiencies combine to mount a continuing disadvantage to communities of race difference and underprivileged peoples.  But I’m confident that none of these barriers are as significant as the continued operation of privilege within affluent cities.  San Francisco does not lack the resources to accomplish spiritual and material healing for all people.  The problem is that ‘I’ refuse it.  And ‘I’ – this body that ‘I’ signify – stands up and says, “Fuck that…” – “I’m going to see a movie…”  And, “I have shit that I rather do than intervene on my privilege and serve the poor.”  Make no mistake, this is another ridiculous instance of the white man’s burden complex, and it does have huge effects!

The knowledge of this modest witness over himself, subverts himself, makes his mainstream bourgeois liberal comfort problematic and challenges his contemporary anti-political action to intervene on his own privilege and take responsibility for those ‘communities of difference’ – as an ally and scholar-activist.  Responsibility is the key antidote for this subject and the lack thereof the greatest barrier to learning how to effect change.  Responsibility is a key issue for Jacques Derrida and for Gayatri Spivak – two thinkers I take very seriously for their work in deconstruction, subaltern and post-colonial theory.  Taking into consideration an operating Secular-Christian discourse in the contemporary subject, I find Derrida’s link between irresponsibility and the demonic to be considerably provocative:  “The demonic is originally defined as irresponsibility, or, if one wishes, as nonresponsibility.  It belongs to a space in which there has not yet resounded the injunction to respond; a space in which one does not yet hear the call to explain oneself, one’s actions or one’s thoughts, to respond to the other and answer for oneself before the other.”[19]

This is the order of the same – the desert of the real.  It is a desert of theory where I often wonder… especially when I need to escape the reality that I am on a ship headed toward imploding disaster.  Like the diffracted institution that figures in the reimagining social order, I am also a figure whose modest witness is part of that diffracted light, casting shadows and encountering spectral mirrors.  The power of my body is the disillusionment produced by US privilege, managed by cities like San Francisco and incorporated through institutions like Glide and CIIS.  The good new is also that power.  The living awareness that not all things are certain, that spirit is alive in the world and that located within massive privilege lies plenty of diffracted margins of hope, grace, and love.



Camacho, David.  Ed.  Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles: Race, Class, and             the Environment.  Duke University.  Durham & London.  1998.

Chardin, Pierre Teilhard de.  The Human Phenomenon.  Sussex Academic Press,             Brighton & Oregon.  1999.

Derrida, Jacques.  The Gift of Death.  University of Chicago.  Chicago, IL.  1992.

Foucault, Michel.  Discipline & Punish and The Birth of the Prison.  Vintage. New York.              1975.


Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™. Routledge.  New York, NY.  1997.

Harris, Marvin.  Cutlural Materialism. New York, NY.  1980.


Kuhn, Thomas S.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Chicago, IL.  1962.


Latour, Bruno.  Science in Action.  Harvard University.  Cambridge, MA.  1987.


Sheldrake, Rupert.  A New Science of Life: Morphic Resonance.  Park Street.  Rochester,             Vermont.  1995.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View.  Viking.  New             York,             NY.  2006.

Watts, Allen.  The Culture of Counter-Culture.  Charles E. Tuttle.  Boston, MA. 1997.

Whitehead, A. N.  Modes of Thought.  Free Press, New York, NY. 1968.

[1] Haraway, Donna. The title of Donna Haraway’s book is ridiculous and perfect.  And it is long.  So I will refer to her book: Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ in the abrivated form “Modest_Witness.”  52.

[2] Haraway, Donna.  Modest_Witness.  50.

[3] Rupert Sheldrake in his work as a biologist has pointed out the great importance of the “shifting aspects of our relations to nature” in his examination of morphic resonance and the problems of morphogenesis – “the ‘coming-into-being’ of characteristic and specific form in living organisms.”[3] Sheldrake.  A New Science of Life, 19.

[4] Ode to Teilhard de Chardin: “Refracted back in evolution, consciousness spreads out qualitatively behind us in a spectrum of variable shades whose lower terms are lost in darkness.”  The Human Phenomenon. 27.

[5] It is important to note that the function of myth cannot be read as monolithic.  The functioning of efficient forms of myth is essential to an integrated perspective about the self and the world. According to Jean Gebser, contemporary science operates on a deficiently mythical as well as magical level as it characterizes mentally deficient mode of consciousness.

[6] Kuhn, Thomas.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2.

[7] This idea is extremely important for it provides example not only of the persuasiveness of particular modes of consciousness, but it pays testament to the humility that is necessary in relation to knowledge-as-perspective.  Many different authors make this important link including Jean Gebser and Michel Foucault.  Here I am specifically drawing from Alan Watts in his book the Culture of Counter Culture 20,21.

[8] Tarnas, Richard.  Psyche and Cosmos.  451.

[9] Whitehead, Modes of Thought,  73.

[10] Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness.  36.

[11] Ibid. 37.

[12] Haraway, Donna.  Modest_Witness. 8-11, 179.

[13] Haraway, Donna.  Modest_Witness.  16, 34, 273.

[14] Ibid. 23-24.

[15] Harris, Marvin.  Cutlural Materialism. 55.

[16] Foucault, Michel.  Discipline and Punish. 73.

[17] Camacho, David E.  ed.  Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles.  28.

[18] Ibid. 13.

[19] Derrida, Jacques.  The Gift of Death.  3.

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